What’s our Natural History team up to during the Covid-19 lockdown?

What’s our Natural History team up to during the Covid-19 lockdown?

Our building may be closed, but Lara Shepherd takes us through the important work that the Natural History team are doing from home. What has the team been working on in their bubbles? How is collection management continuing with no access to the collection? And what’s on the menu for our flesh-eating beetles?

Research from the ‘home-office’

Many of the curators and researchers are using this time to write up scientific manuscripts on their research. The team is working on a diverse range of topics from describing new species of plants and animals, examining what New Zealand birds eat and identifying the fungi that orchids need to grow.

Man in brown sweatshirt sitting in front of two computer screens with images of a fish and the map of the Pacific ocean. The monitors are sitting on books.
Carl Struthers is working on a scientific manuscript describing three new species of fish. Photo by Henry Struthers

Sharing our science

An important part of our job is to make our science accessible to everyone. We have been working on blogs, articles for newsletters, identification guides and even a children’s book. Here are links for the blogs we have published during lockdown: giant carnivorous snails, seabird conservation, Pokémon fossils, a new bird record for New Zealand and hot pool mosquitoes.

Some of us have also been busy on Twitter and Facebook, including making a series of posts about #FernsAtHome on New Zealand ferns.

Our natural history curators and researchers have also been writing funding proposals, upskilling with online workshops, advising students, identifying specimens and much, much more!

Woman with light-coloured hair looking into a miscroscope. There is a computer monitor in the background with a giant fly or mosquito on it
Julia Kasper has been identifying mosquitoes donated as part of the New Zealand mosquito census. Photo by Hannes Kasper

Bubble walk discoveries

But we haven’t just been stuck inside! The team has been making the most of their bubble walks to make bird counts, record observations on iNaturalist, including a second site of a new weed recently found in Wellington, and collecting plants and insects.

Man with a beard and blue sweatshirt putting paper tags into a hedge
Carlos Lehnebach collects seeds from a Bartlett’s rātā tree growing near his home in Lower Hutt. He hand-pollinated the flowers of this very rare species in November. Photo by Andi Zeller
Man in blue tshirt and jeans looking up into trees holding a notebook and wearing binoculars
Colin Miskelly and his wife Kate are making a daily bird list during their bubble walks in the town belt. These lists are then submitted to the NZ Bird Atlas. On one walk they saw 18 kākā! Photo by Kate McAlpine
Kākā recorded by Colin at Prince of Wales Park. Photo by Kate McAlpine

Caring for our collections

Our collection managers and technicians typically spend most of their work day with the objects in Te Papa’s collections. Although they can’t access the collection stores during the lockdown, there is plenty to keep them busy.

Details of many of our older natural history specimens are not yet included in Te Papa’s collection database. Databasing this backlog is a HUGE job but one that can be done from home.

Computer screenshot of a photo of a scientific record for a plant
Bridget Hatton is databasing backlog specimens. This plant was collected in 1890! In anticipation of the working-from-home scenario she devoted a few days to photographing over 1100 undatabased herbarium specimens. This has provided plenty of work for two technicians during lockdown. Photo by Bridget Hatton


A table and chairs with boxes of black and white tags and labels with a laptop off to one side
Tom Schultz’s kitchen table has been taken over by the fish otoliths he is databasing. Photo by Tom Schultz

Our collection managers and technicians have also been uploading images to Te Papa’s media library and creating best-practice databasing guides.

What’s on the menu?

Whilst most of us are at home some of our special assistants are in confinement at Te Papa. We have a colony of flesh-eating dermestid beetles that strip the flesh from dead animals, leaving the clean bones for our collection.  However, we aren’t processing dead animals at the moment. So technician Catherine Tate has one of the more unusual essential service jobs – feeding the beetles. Expired free-range chicken thighs, a roast chicken carcass and a bag of mystery “off-cuts” in the natural history freezer have all been on the menu – yum!

You can learn more about our beetles from Catherine here:

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